What’s more human than bread and tears? We need to eat and we need to express emotion.
In Psalm 80, we read, “You have fed them the bread of tears” (v. 6). That type of bread doesn’t sound too pleasant. In the Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday of Lent, if the readings follow the Scrutinies (used for those preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil), we will hear of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We all know this story from John’s Gospel: Jesus is away when his friend, Lazarus, takes ill. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, send word but, before Jesus can return, Lazarus dies. Four days later, Jesus arrives in Bethany and goes to the tomb. There we hear the famous words: “Jesus wept.”
Why did Jesus weep?
It may seem strange that Jesus — who knows he will raise Lazarus to life — weeps at the tomb. The Greek word used to express Jesus’ tears refers to a silent weeping; not the wailing aloud of mourners, but the tears of sorrow that well up and fall from deep pain in the heart. As an anonymous Bible commentator noted, “This is in sacred and eternal refutation of the theory which deprives the incarnate Logos of St. John of human heart and spirit. These tears have been for all the ages a grand testimony to the fullness of his humanity, and also a divine revelation of the very heart of God.”
Jesus wept because he was sad. He was sad for Martha, Mary and Lazarus. He empathized with them. He knew the pain of separation and sorrow that we all must experience.
Pope Francis noted this empathy of Jesus earlier this year, when he answered the question of a 12-year-old girl in the Philippines, who had been homeless and asked why God allows suffering.
“Jesus in the Gospel cried,” the pope said, “he cried for his dead friend, Lazarus, he cried in his heart for the family that had lost its child, he cried in his heart when he saw the old widow having to bury her son, he was moved to tears of compassion when he saw the multitude of crowds without a pastor.”
Even though Jesus had just told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and he knew that his divine power would raise Lazarus, his human heart still wept.
Keeping the tear
This humanity of Jesus has been cherished over the centuries in various ways. By the Middle Ages (around the 12th and 13th centuries), legends arose that one of those tears was captured on that day. Holy relics, both of saints and of Christ, were very popular across Europe at that time. One reported relic was La Sainte Larme (the holy tear), at the French abbey of La Trinité in Vendôme. The legend said that this tear of Jesus had been caught by an angel and given to Mary Magdalene for safe-keeping.
Traditions said that Mary — along with Lazarus and his sisters — travelled away from the Holy Land after Christ’s ascension. According to some legends, they all went to France, where Lazarus became the first bishop of Marseilles. Following that legend, we hear that the tear was placed near Lazarus’ (second) tomb. Other churches in France also claimed to possess the tear of Christ, or ampules that contained part of the tear. The actual relic at Vendôme was lost during the French Revolution.
Another legend — coming from the Eastern churches — say Lazarus became the first bishop of Cyprus, appointed by Paul and Barnabas, in what is now Larnaka.
Celebrating on Saturday
In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, the story of Lazarus honors Christ’s power over life and death on a Saturday, rather than on a Sunday. On the day before Palm Sunday in Eastern traditions, John’s Gospel about Lazarus is read in churches at a liturgy with all the ceremony of a Sunday Mass. The day itself is called “Lazarus Saturday” and Christ is praised and glorified on that day as “the Resurrection and the life.”
On this same day, Orthodox Christians in countries like Russia, celebrate by eating caviar. Just as Lazarus’ new life prefigures Christ’s resurrection, the fish eggs remind us that actual Easter eggs will be eaten in just eight days’ time. Tears will be turned into joy.
From Cyprus, as well as Greece, we received a later tradition tied to Lazarus that deals directly with bread. At this time of year, many households commemorate what Christ did for Lazarus and what he will do for all of us with Lazarakia, or “Lazarus Bread.” These loaves are baked on Lazarus Saturday, seasoned with spices like cinnamon and anise, and formed into the shape of a man swaddled in bread strips. The spices remind us of the tomb and the dough strips remind us of the tomb wrappings.
Sometimes the little bread figure looks like a mummy and sometimes the dough is split to give him legs — since Lazarus walked free from his tomb.
Lazarus Bread, often decorated with a smiling face made of raisins, currants or seeds, is meant to be a bread of joy and promise. However, since we still await Easter, this type of bread is not brushed with butter or an egg wash as Easter breads would be. Still, unlike the bread of tears that ancient Israel ate during the Babylonian Exile, Lazarus Bread reminds us of the banquet of the risen Lamb as Easter draws near.
Sources: studylight.org/commentaries; catholicherald.co.uk/news; catholicismpure.wordpress.com; “Droplets of Heaven: Tear relics of the 13th century” at academia.edu; “Christ’s Tears: Madame Sainte Larme in Medieval and Early Modern England and France” at Medium Aevum; The Orthodox Church in America at oca.org; byzcath.org; orthodoxtraditions.blogspot.com; folkromania.com; wikiortho.org; and goarch.com.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” and “Making Sense of Saints,” both published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.